The Auburn Tigers are 6-1, one of the two great surprise teams of the SEC this season. Looking at all of the games left to go in the West division, AU is not likely to finish below third in the division. Not bad for a team selected to finish sixth in the preseason consensus.
Should we have seen this coming? Could we have seen this coming? Here are the signs that were there before the season began.
Gus Malzahn is no ordinary first-year coach.
Yes, Malzahn is a first-year coach on the Plains, but it's not exactly the same thing as what normally happens when a new boss comes in. He had been in the program for three of the four previous years, so he already knew most of the players on the roster. Most of the players on the offense had been recruited to run his offense.
The process of learning the strengths and weaknesses of what is on hand was much faster and less complicated than normal. There was no usual new-coach exodus of players leaving because they don't like or trust the unfamiliar guy running the show. Offseason attrition did happen like it does everywhere, but guys weren't bailing by the dozen because they didn't like Malzahn.
Put it all together, and many of the normal challenges for new head coaches just weren't there.
The talent was actually there on offense.
There seemed to be a belief after last season that Auburn's offense just didn't have enough good players. After all, that 2012 Tiger offense was a tale of woe and sorrow. The general attitude is summed up well by the conclusion of this piece at Virginia Tech blog The Key Play:
Poor Loeffler. There is nothing worse than having the right play called vs the right defense, and seeing it fail because your personnel just aren't good enough. This is the theme of Auburn's offense and it's seen over, and over, and over. Loeffler exhibits good play design, a very good intuition on when to use play-action, and a firm grasp on route packages. The old saying is true though. Jimmys and Joes matter more than X's and O's, and at the end of the day Loeffler's Joes weren't good enough to beat the other teams' Jimmys.
OK, so a fan of the school that picked up Scot Loeffler overstated the case just a bit, but you get the idea. The conventional wisdom held that Auburn's offense was just too untalented to do anything well.
Except that it's not. It wasn't equipped to run whatever the pro-stye mess that Gene Chizik and Loeffler cooked up, but it had players. In fact at the end of this year's fall camp, the two-deep on offense was the third-most talented in the SEC by recruiting rankings. Give talented players to Malzahn, and good things tend to happen.
Malzahn fixed the biggest problem on offense.
With all of that said, there really was one big problem on offense, and that was at quarterback. Even bringing back Malzahn's offense probably wasn't going to be enough to reclaim Kiehl Frazier.
Well, Malzahn fixed it by signing JUCO transfer Nick Marshall. He had to battle to win the job, but he's turned out to be a wonderful guy in the starting role. He's only going to get better, too. Could we all have seen it coming from Marshall? This is the most debatable point here, but Malzahn has a good track record of bringing in JUCO guys.
Marshall didn't need to be Heisman caliber to get a good turnaround out of the team, he just needed to be above average. Done and done.
Ellis Johnson is a massive upgrade on defense.
The puzzling thing about Chizik is that he never put together an elite defense in his time as Auburn's head coach. Even the 2010 national championship team had a defense that was closer to merely adequate than truly dominant.
Johnson is a veteran guy who certainly knows his way around the conference. He also knows how to be the defensive boss for an offensive head coach from his time working with Steve Spurrier. So far, the defense is much better than in 2012.
I'm not sure I would have predicted this big of a jump, but Johnson is great and Auburn's post-camp defensive two-deep was the fourth-most talented in the SEC by recruiting rankings.
Put it together.
If you combine the expectation of an improved defense to go along with the inevitable improvements on offense, then you could have seen a big jump in record. For my part, I had Auburn at 5-2 at this point in the season. I got the loss to LSU but had predicted a loss to A&M. I am not feeling so good about the prediction of a loss at Tennessee in three weeks, but anyway, I don't feel like I was too far off.
The team has played better than I expected, but it also showed its ugly side in the loss to LSU. Its first half drives together netted just 119 yards (total and penalty combined), and it didn't score a point on the Bayou Bengals with the deficit smaller than 21 points. LSU has been inconsistent to say the least, but when it's on, it's a great team that's a lot better than the WAC outfit A&M has become. LSU was on against Auburn, and it made the Plainsmen look like merely a team with promise that's not there yet. Nothing about that contest suggested that the Tigers would be No. 11 in the first BCS standings.
The ranking is also a product of the fact that this season has been a bit chaotic compared to expectations. It's no 2007, but it's not 2011 either. Auburn is not your classic team on the cusp of the top 10, and indeed it's in the mid teens in the human polls and No. 25 in F/+. It's 4-0 in games decided by one score or less, and readers of Phil Steele's magazine will know that he considers that a sign of good fortune with a regression in record likely to come the following season if it holds up.
We'll see how things finish, but anything short of 9-3 would be a disappointment given the schedule left to go. If you thought 8-4 or especially 7-5 would be a disappointment for Auburn in August, you're lying. But maybe we all should have seen it coming.